I got word that my elderly friend, His Excellency Mohammed Ould Salek, the Minister-Adviser on Diplomatic Affairs to President Brahim Ghali of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, better known as Western Sahara, was in Nigeria. He was the Special Envoy sent by the Saharawi President on April 28, 2023 to bid farewell to President Muhamadu Buhari as he ends his tenure on May 29, 2023.
This gesture is quite understandable because when SADR was struggling against re-colonisation by the Moroccan monarchy, Nigeria, led by then General Buhari, gave it recognition in 1984. Nigeria was satisfied that Western Sahara under the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 of December 14, 1960 on Decolonisation, had a right to statehood. Again, Nigeria backed the decision of the Organisation of African Unity (Now the African Union) to admit Western Sahara as a member.
The bold diplomatic and conscientious stand by that regime, which had Professor Ibrahim Gambari as Foreign Minister, has since then informed Nigeria’s unambiguous position on the independence of Western Sahara.
Indeed the situation of the Saharawi is one of the most terrible cases of crimes against humanity, and perhaps, the worst refugee crises in history. After the 1975 Moroccan military attacks on the civilian populace, many Saharawi took refuge in the Tindouf Province of Algeria. They and their offspring have been forced to remain in those five Algerian refugee camps for the past 48 years while Morocco occupies their ancestral homes!
The United Nations-backed referendum which was to allow the Saharawi determine whether to be an autonomous state or part of Morocco, has been stalled for decades by the latter.
Also, Morocco has over the last few years sought to maintain its illegal occupation of parts of Western Sahara by offering grants to susceptible African countries, and using the natural resources of Western Sahara, such as fisheries and phosphate, as bait.
For instance, it is giving stolen phosphate and fertilizer from Western Sahara to a top industralist in Nigeria and allowing the European Union to illegally feast on Saharawi fisheries.
I first met Minister Salek in June 2019 when he accompanied President Ghali to a reception held by the Dipo Fashina-led Nigerian Movement for the Liberation of Western Sahara. We knocked it off as if we had been old friends. We met again in 2021 when he updated me on the situation in his country.
This morning of Sunday, April 30, 2023, our meeting was as usual cordial. But this time, he had gotten a goat slain for me and the sight of the table he had gotten prepared, was intimidating. I told him I was intimidated and, more so, I should actually be his host. He laughed heartily and said: “We herders, when we have a very important visitor, we kill a goat, ram or camel.” I told him that a decade and half ago, when I visited Western Sahara, I ate camel meat for two weeks. He laughed and said, we had not met then, but that I must return, and this time, stay in his house. I told him if he could intimidate me with so much food right here in Abuja, then I was afraid what would happen if I visited Western Sahara.
Our conversations on the state of the Moroccan occupation of his country began with his showing a photograph of himself and Syrian President Bashir Assad being circulating on internet allegedly by Morocco. He said the photograph was taken before the Syrian War, but was being circulated as a recent one. The Saharawi envoy said the intention was part of Morocco’s campaign to stop the re-admission of Syria into the Arab League and Gulf States.
I asked him about the Nigeria-Morocco Gas Pipeline which passes through Western Sahara. He said his country has asked that the project be stopped to allow the consent and involvement of his country.
Minister Salek said despite Morocco looting the resources of Western Sahara and creating the illusion of a buoyant economy, the country is actually sinking. In his analysis, Morocco’s primary problem is that its wealth is in the hands of 10 families who are mismanaging and looting it. He informed that in order to keep afloat, Morocco on April 3, 2023, took a $5 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund, IMF; the fifth such loan in ten tears. He said the state of the ordinary Moroccan is so bad that many are taking to the sea in a desperate bid to get to Europe leading to many of them drowning.
The Saharawi Minister said the Moroccan economy would face more shocks as the free money from EU countries carrying out illegal fishing in Western Sahara waters, will stop from July 17. He said the EU Court had in September 2021, nullified the EU-Morocco Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement, SFPA, on the grounds that fishing cannot be carried out in Western Sahara waters without the consent of its people. He said that at a March 20, 2023 meeting of the 27 EU Member States’ Ministers for Fisheries, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland had pleaded for an extension of the agreement in violation of the EU Court decision, but that most members refused.
Minister Salek assured me that the renewed military conflict against Moroccan occupation which began in 2020 is going well: “The war is causing a lot of casualties for Morocco, but Morocco has introduced new weapons, drones and we need to find a solution to these drones as soon as possible. If after the first 16 years war they could not conquer us, they will not now.”
He said the issue is not Morocco or any power it has, but like were the cases of the Apartheid regimes in Namibia and South Africa: “It is the backing it is getting from Europe and America. They are saying Russia cannot change its borders with Ukraine; how can they then claim Morocco can change its borders with Western Sahara?”
The Minister said the issue of Western Sahara is one of decolonisation adding: “You cannot occupy Nigeria or Benin and say, I grant you autonomy. Western Sahara was never part of Morocco; we were always sovereign. That was also the ruling of the International Court of Justice, IJC, in October 1975.”
He said the monarchy is deliberately keeping the Moroccan military which had two attempted coups against his father, busy, by throwing it against Western Sahara: “Morocco that has no funds to buy food to feed its hungry populace, but is buying arms.”
Minister Salek informed that the BRICS meeting in Cape Town said the issue of Western Sahara must be resolved: “There is a new reality in the international field; that is why we need Nigeria to play its role.”
- Owei Lakemfa is a journalist, labour and social rights activist and host of Diplomatic Hour, Citizen FM, Abuja. Readers’ comments are welcome.